Walter Langston woke with a start, his heart pounding against his breastbone. Uncertain what had disturbed him, he lifted his head and looked over at his wife, Artemisia. She was still spooned against him and, to all appearances, sound asleep. Perhaps he’d had a nightmare? That would explain his sudden awakening and racing pulse. Except that usually, if a dream roused him, he remembered something of it. Not this time. So he lay, alert and listening for the source of his disturbance. He’d just begun to think he truly must have been dreaming when he heard it. A horse’s whinny and then the creaking of hinges as the stable door was pushed shut. Walter shot out of bed like a bullet from the barrel of a musket, scrambling in the dark for the clothing he kept by the bedside in case of emergencies. Early in his career, he had discovered that a clergyman was as likely to be called upon in the middle of the night as a doctor or magistrate, and so he had learned to be prepared for such nocturnal interruptions. As he tugged on his trousers, he reflected gratefully on the fact that he’d never got round to oiling those hinges properly or he might never have been alerted to the crime. Though it was probably too late already. By the time he got dressed, the thief would likely be long gone. “Wha’sa-matter?” Artemisia murmured, her voice slurred with sleep.
“I think someone is trying to steal Buford.” Throwing a crisp linen shirt over his head, he bounded to the window overlooking the rear of the vicarage and pulled aside the draperies to peer out. It was one of those unusually bright nights that often occurred in winter when the sky was clear and the moon was at or near the full. The stable was positioned to the right of the house, its doors opening onto a gravel drive that ran parallel to the back of the property. The sight that met his eyes made him gape with astonishment. He had expected—and perhaps hoped—to see someone leading Buford, an unremarkable gelding of uncertain pedigree, out the gate and onto the road. Someone he might be able to frighten off by throwing open the sash, sticking his head out the window, and shouting, “Stop, thief!” But what he saw instead was the horse standing alone in the center of the drive, stamping his feet, and looking from side to side with a decided air of bewilderment. The stable doors were closed and so was the gate. Not another soul was in sight. What in the world? “From the vicar?” Artemisia demanded, sounding more awake.
“And on Christmas Eve, too. Have people no shame at all?” Still holding the drapes open, Walter looked over his shoulder at his wife. “No shame and apparently no sense. The thief appears to have left the goods behind.” “What?” Artemisia threw off the covers and rose from the bed, her shapely, naked form limned in silvery light like that of a pagan goddess until she drew on her dressing gown. She hurried to his side as she pulled the two sides of the robe together for warmth, for the room was chilly despite the embers that glowed in the grate. When she reached the window, she looked down to survey the same puzzling scene that met his own eyes. “What on earth?” “My thoughts exactly,” Walter said. “Why go to the trouble of trying to steal a horse only to leave it behind?” His wife shook her head uneasily. “It must be a ploy to get you to come outside.
Though I cannot imagine to what end.” “Neither can I, but I intend to find out.” He gestured for her to take his place in front of the window. “Stay here and keep watch until I get down there. On the off chance the thief is hiding just out of sight and plans to abscond with poor Buford while I am making my way downstairs. And shout if you see anyone.” Nodding, she replaced his hand where he held open the drapes with her own, and Walter rushed to put on his boots and coat. Once in the hallway, he grabbed one of the lanterns from the wall and hurtled down the stairs two at a time. When he reached the ground floor, he paused, but hearing nothing from upstairs, he proceeded out the front door and around the side of the house. Buford was still standing in the drive, his bay coat sparkling so entrancingly in the moonlight that he appeared to be almost a figment of Walter’s imagination.
But there was no denying that the horse was real; not when his breath steamed from his nostrils and his hooves clacked audibly against the gravel. Walter approached his mount with some caution, scanning his surroundings, but no one appeared in his peripheral or indeed any other part of his vision, and soon he was close enough to pat the animal on his neck and murmur soothing nonsense words. Upon assuring himself that Buford was quite unharmed and no one appeared poised to attack, he waved up toward the window where Artemisia still stood. Shaking his head with puzzlement, he walked to the stable doors to examine them. The bolt that held them closed had been pulled open and left that way so that the panel through which Buford had been led into the yard still gaped slightly ajar. The sound of the bolt being thrown and the door being opened must have been what had roused him at first. Again, he marveled that he’d heard either noise through the closed window, but the hinges truly were rusted and squeaky. But the whole series of events made no sense. Buford was not a valuable specimen of horseflesh, but if the thief had realized this and decided to abandon the endeavor, why go to the trouble of leading the horse out into the yard and closing the stable door afterward? Why take the risk of being caught? Perhaps one of his parishioners was trying to teach him a lesson? There were a few members of his flock who considered Walter a bit too trusting and prone to forgiveness, although he noticed they rarely considered him too forgiving when it came to his pardons of their own transgressions. He’d been advised more than once, however, that he ought to lock the church at night to keep out the riffraff and be more assiduous in securing his personal property.
Walter had more than once assured these counselors that first, the house of the Lord should be open to all at any hour and second, anyone who stole anything that belonged to Walter probably needed it more than he did. Yes, he decided, there were a few who might try something like this to get him to change his ways. Purely in his own best interest, of course. That was the most likely explanation, though why anyone would choose Christmas Eve of all nights to attempt to impart such a message was beyond him. He pulled on the panel to open it fully, prefatory to returning Buford to his stall. The hinges creaked abominably, but he thought he heard something else as well. He paused with the panel half open, and then he heard it. The thin, reedy cry of an infant.